Chef Matt Masera’s future looks delicious.
WRITTEN BY SHANNIN STEIN
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CUNNINGHAM
It’s hard not to enjoy spending time with chef Matt Masera. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with him or having a beer — he always makes things more fun. He is a wonderful combination of natural talent, hard work, humility, and humor. Chef Eric Sarmento said it best when he told his girlfriend the morning after the 2016 Tower Bridge Dinner (the finale gala dinner of the annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration in the fall), “Babe, I think I’m in love with Matt Masera.”
Masera, 31, has worked hard to establish himself as one of Sacramento’s hottest chefs over the past three years. As the opening executive chef for Sacramento’s Mother restaurant and its sister Empress Tavern (a title he shared with owner Mike Thiemann) and as the opening executive chef for the highly promoted Saddle Rock restaurant in Sacramento, he developed a loyal following of dining patrons eager to see what the talented culinarian would do next.
Now, as the executive chef at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. in Sacramento, he’s found a new level of freedom, a new opportunity for creativity, and a newfound enthusiasm for the profession he’s been involved in since he was 15. From brown butter sea salt cookies (more on those later) to his amazing ramen and handmade pastas, Masera continues to make a name for himself in our rapidly growing culinary scene ... and he credits it all to the people who have guided him along the way.
Hungry for more
Masera has worked in professional kitchens for more than half of his life, starting in high school at the former Christophe’s in Folsom. A job that started as a way to pay for gas money quickly evolved into a lifelong passion. Instead of going to football games and parties, Masera spent his nights and weekends working at the cozy, 25-seat French restaurant. There, he learned to appreciate food and working with seasonal ingredients. He harvested vegetables and herbs out of the restaurant’s garden for the evening’s menu while also learning cooking terms, techniques, and the history of French cuisine. Masera talks about his time at Christophe’s with great appreciation.
“I was too young and cocky to realize the value of everything I was learning,” he says. “But it was my culinary school.”
The year 2016 brought big changes for Masera. It started off with the announcement that he and his wife, Dana, were expecting their first child. In the spring, Matt and Dana purchased their first house — not coincidentally from his friend and longtime mentor, Ginger Elizabeth Hahn.
Masera’s face lights up when he talks about Hahn. Although he learned some pastry skills at Christophe’s, he had not given much thought to specializing in pastries until he met Hahn while working at Masque Ristorante in El Dorado Hills in 2004.
“Ginger taught me composition and attention to detail,” Masera says. “I still think to myself when plating a dessert, ‘What would Ginger do?’”
Hahn also was the first chef who taught Masera the importance of self-discipline and having a strong set of core values.
“Ginger possesses an incredible level of integrity and self-awareness,” he says. “She has high expectations of the people around her because she has even higher expectations of herself.”
When asked about making the leap from pastry chef to executive chef, Masera says, “I never thought of myself wholly as a pastry chef — I’ve always identified as a chef.”
Meanwhile, the majority of Masera’s professional positions for the years following his departure from Masque were as a pastry chef.
It wasn’t until Mike Thiemann asked Masera to join him in opening Mother as co-executive chef that Masera really pushed the boundaries of what he was capable of in the kitchen.
Mother’s 10-course tasting menu option, the Chef’s 10, forced his creativity into new areas.
“It didn’t matter what I did, as long as it was meatless,” he says. “It just had to be amazing.”
That creative freedom, combined with Thiemann’s infectious energy and enthusiasm, were a magical combination for Masera.
“In the beginning, I fed off of Mike (Thiemann)’s energy,” Masera says. “His punk-rock attitude drove Mother’s identity. Instead of us following what the industry said was cool, we were telling people what was cool — we thrived off being different.”
They tried to continue that dynamic when they opened the next restaurant, Empress Tavern. But two executive chefs turned out to be one too many.
At a stressful time, while expecting his first child and only four days after the Maseras closed on their house, Masera’s run at Empress Tavern and Mother came to an end. Masera calls his departure from Empress Tavern a “beautiful disaster that needed to happen.” Though unexpected, it was the kick in the pants that he needed.
“My biggest regret about my time at Mother and Empress is that I didn’t pick my head up sooner,” he says. “I felt too safe in my role and became complacent.”
Staking his claim
After leaving Mother/Empress, Masera realized that he had become creatively stifled over his last few months with the company. He jumped head first into researching and preparing his menu for Saddle Rock, even before he was formally offered a job there. The restaurant pays homage to Sacramento’s history and is named after the first restaurant ever to open here in 1849. Masera was enthralled with how food had influenced and shaped Sacramento’s history.
“It was deeper than farm to fork,” he says. “It was about how we became Sacramento, all of the cultures that contributed to our city.”
Unfortunately, Masera was more committed to the historical concept than the owners were, and differences in opinion quickly manifested.
“Theme restaurants are difficult in the first place, and without a total dedication to that theme, it’s hard, if not impossible, to maintain public interest,” he says.
In November, only a few months after helping open Saddle Rock, and a month after his beautiful baby girl was born, Masera left abruptly to join creative forces with the team at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co. The kitchen staff members had just parted ways with its longtime executive chef, Brian Mizner, and were eager to reinvigorate their menu and culinary program. Masera says the decision to leave Saddle Rock came after a particularly long day at the restaurant. His wife, Dana, looked at him and told him he was the unhappiest she had ever seen him.
“I was struck by the moment,” he says. “My amazing wife was holding my brand-new baby, telling me she was worried about how unhappy I was. In that moment, it wasn’t about me anymore; it was about us.”
Masera is dedicated to pushing his culinary skills to new levels at Hook & Ladder. He and his team members have built a custom ramen cart, changed the happy hour menu, created a new signature burger, and are rolling out new and exciting dishes each week. Bar manager Chris Tucker is even letting Masera try his hand at cocktail creation. (His hot toddy this past winter was a hit.)
Masera also has another new focus: developing his team and the people who work with him.
“Inspiration is contagious,” he says. “When I see my crew have the same excitement and enthusiasm I have for what we’re doing, what we’re creating, that means the world to me. I’ve been fortunate enough to have amazing mentors and teachers throughout my career; now it’s my turn to be that person.”
And what does Masera say about those brown butter sea salt cookies?
“I want to hate them sometimes,” he says, “but I love them. I never thought my signature dish would be a cookie, but I want to eat them every day too!”
Shannin Stein is known to many in Sacramento’s restaurant community as a general manager, operations manager, and catering director for some of the area’s most popular restaurants and agribusinesses. She has been deeply involved in food activism for the last 10 years and is a founding member of the Sacramento chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which focuses on mentoring women in the food, beverage, and hospitality industry.
Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co.
1630 S St., Sacramento
916-442-4885 • Hookandladder916.com
11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m. Mon. – Thurs.
11:30 a.m. – 1 a.m. Fri.
10 a.m. – 1 a.m. Sat.
10 a.m. – 11 p.m. Sun.